The work from home debate has ramped up over the past week, as employers once again deliberate how to avoid COVID-19 office outbreaks and contend with rising living costs. Employers would be wise to double down on efforts to prioritise the health and wellbeing of their people and their families by relaxing requirements to commute and be in the office when it’s sensible and possible to work from home for the time being.
Sure, plenty of employers are now offering hybrid work weeks and even the four-day working week has grown in popularity — enabling teams to work a set number of days each week or fortnight from home, with the remainder in the office. But many workplaces have imposed mandatory days employees are required to be physically present in the office despite it not being essential to perform their job. The reality is we are still living and working through a global pandemic and enabling employees to be agile and responsive is critical to support meeting competing work and life demands, as well as staying healthy.
And COVID-19 is not the only issue that should be opening the need to rethink restrictions on working from home, during this period.
Another issue is the added and immediate financial pressure facing employees, thanks to the rising cost of living with inflation now the highest it’s been in Australia since 2009, as well as the recent spate of interest rate rises.
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Already, we’ve heard from at least one of our employer members telling us that some individuals are requesting to work from home to keep travel costs down. This is understandable, given the cost of transportation has risen 4.2% in the quarter to March 2022, and by a massive 13.7% over just the past year, according to the ABS.
One practical way employers can look to ease the cost of living pressures is to give more options to employees around how, when and where they work.
The first and immediate cost saving for employees who can work from home will be on transport, especially if they drive, given rising fuel costs.
Reduced travel time can help time-poor employees better manage logistics on the home front, particularly those with additional caring responsibilities, giving more opportunity to reduce additional expenses on things such as child care, parking, meals etc with more bandwidth to be flexible and attend to life needs more efficiently.
These growing costs of living are real, and it impacts the most vulnerable in our communities, in our workplaces and in our families which cannot be dismissed. The strain of higher housing and commuting costs compounded by soaring food prices is hurting — vegetables alone are up a massive 6.6% in the quarter to March 2022 and early childhood education costs are up 4.7% over the year to March 2022.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, there is no doubt that the ‘future of work’ will need to be more flexible as we adapt to new threats and opportunities that emerge around the corner. Those employers that readily accept and embrace this reality and adapt their business models to take advantage of the benefits will be the winners.
It’s important to note that a push to facilitate more working from home options right now doesn’t mean employees won’t ever return to frequent offices in the future. Flexible working arrangements are just that — flexible — open to change and evolution.
Working from home won’t stop COVID-19. It won’t solve the rising cost of living issue or reduce the cost of child care. But for some employees, it will ease the pressure, at least a little bit during these uncertain months ahead. That may ultimately enable them, and their families, to be that much healthier and happier.
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.